Letty Cottin Pogrebin on "Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy"

Knosh & Knowledge to host what promises to be a lively author talk on July 14

GREAT BARRINGTON – On Friday, July 14 at 10:45 a.m., Knosh & Knowledge presents Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who will talk about her acclaimed (and controversial) family memoir Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy. Joining her will be Rabbi Shira Stern, who will ask questions and moderate a Q&A.

This free program will take place at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, 270 State Road in Great Barrington.

The word “shanda” is defined as shame or disgrace in Yiddish. This book, Shanda, tells the story of three generations of complicated, intense 20th-century Jews for whom the desire to fit in and the fear of public humiliation either drove their aspirations or crushed their spirit.

In her deeply engaging, astonishingly candid memoir, author and activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin exposes the fiercely-guarded lies and intricate cover-ups woven by dozens of members of her extended family. Beginning with her own long-suppressed secret, the story spirals through the hidden lives of her parents and relatives—revealing the truth about their origins, personal traumas, marital misery, abandoned children, religious transgressions, sexual identity, radical politics, and supposedly embarrassing illnesses. While unmasking their charades and disguises, Pogrebin also showcases her family’s remarkable talent for reinvention in a narrative that is, by turns, touching, searing, and surprisingly universal.

Books will be available for purchase or bring your own copy for signing by the author. 

This event is part of the monthly Knosh and Knowledge series sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater Berkshires and is also part of Jewish Literary Voices, a Federation Series in collaboration with Jewish Book Council.

The BJV Interview: Letty Cottin Pogrebin

In May, Letty Cottin Pogrebin spoke with the Berkshire Jewish Voice about Shanda and shandas. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Shanda is a comprehensive examination of Ashkenazi Jewish ideas (transplanted to America) of shame, and at one point you identify a notion that might be at its core: the belief that not only is one’s shanda a shanda in the eyes of the people who will judge you once your secret shame is revealed, but is also a shanda that is noticed and judged by an invisible order from which we cannot conceal the truth. Can the traditional Jewish idea of shanda you explore endure without at least a vestigial communal consensus that a higher, unseen source of right and wrong underpins and keeps tabs upon our earthly endeavors?


I think we're talking about God here.

I was about to say: “Talk about God without mentioning God.” So, brass tacks. We're talking about Hashem. There are Jews who believed in God and didn't have a real clue about the wisdom tradition or the text that supported various behaviors. They were taught of it with mother's milk. The value system that all of us take as Jewish when we say ‘Jewish values’ or ‘Jewish family values,’ we get at the Seder table – 85 percent of Jews do one ritual, and that's the Seder. Otherwise, nothing touches 85 percent of us in terms of Jewish observance. So you have 85 out of 100 Jews who have listened to a message about liberation, about interceding in history in order to relieve oppression, all the things we call ‘Jewish values.’ We were slaves in Egypt, and therefore, we know the feelings of the other, the stranger.

But I think the crux of your question is how can you have a shame-based secret if there's no value given to a behavior that you're ashamed of? Where then is that behavior judged to be bad? Well, it's not from God. It's not God-given. People do not say, ‘I am not littering because I believe in God’ – even though I use that example in the book because it is so trivial and quotidian. It's just something you do. You pick up after yourself. Do you really think God is going to hit you, zap you with some punishment because you didn't pick up a tissue? No, you kind of learned not to litter along the way.

I don't think that we have a God-anchored moral system. I think we have it from our families and we have it from our blurry sense of our tradition and our forebears and our forefathers and foremothers. We learn about their flaws and we learn what is right and what is wrong and what they did that was wrong. We might call some of what they did deception, but we learn that it was done for a higher purpose. We absorb all that by osmosis. But I'm not Orthodox. I'm not Haredi. If I were, maybe I would feel that God was watching me every minute.

As much as Shanda is about shameful behavior, it is about the networks of misinformation families (and communities, as well) construct to conceal their shandas. Lies are invented, inconvenient facts are expunged from the narrative, and confederates are enlisted within the family to hide certain truths from other family members, putatively with good intentions. You write so well about the feeling of betrayal elicited when a long-buried fact emerges and you realize people you love and trusted were in a conspiracy against you – as you put it, there should be a support group called “Dupes Anonymous for children of deceit.” So in terms of most family shandas (embarrassments, not abuses), what is usually worse for the family – the crime or the cover-up?

I wanted to address that first sentence. I think that's exactly right. It is about the network of misinformation that families have constructed to conceal their shandas. Then, they make that the baseline. Take drinking alcohol, okay? Jews don't drink – that's what I was taught. That was the Ashkenazic culture of the immigrant families that I knew. But what that did was it created a baseline where you couldn't admit that you had an alcoholic kid or parent, because we had our own ethos around drinking, a mystique that Jews aren't alcoholics. So I think I wanted to address that core belief that once your shame is revealed, it's going to be noticed by the community and it's going to be a shanda, because it goes against the given of the Jewish world, of Jewish life, of Jewish families, of Jewish culture.

It sets up a standard where you can't be true to yourself or you can't even confront difficulties that need expert help. Think about the shanda of abuse in Jewish families. Every family is ashamed [if abuse occurs], I think, but Jewish families would rather not get help than let it be known.

So, the second part of my question – in terms of your understanding of family dynamics, what is worse, the cover-up or the crime?

In my case, the cover-up resulted in a loss of trust that has taken me a lifetime to make up for. After you find out that the people that you trust most have lied to you and they've constructed this complete Potemkin Village to cover up the truth, you never are going to trust the surface of anything or what people tell you. Never. That made me a good journalist. But the cover-up is the greater betrayal because it creates the status of someone being made a fool. It adds to the pain of what you're calling a crime. It’s the betrayal or the lie or the deception or the charade or anything that people use to lessen the pain of the shanda.

I felt like a complete fool. Why didn't I see it? My whole family was in cahoots. I'm the only one who's been duped, so I must be stupid. I didn't see the pictures [of my parents’ wedding] that was supposed to have taken place 1923 – but the men in them are wearing Humphrey Bogart hats from the 1940s. Why didn't I realize that? Why didn't I realize my mother was faking her high school graduation picture?

That was one of the most interesting parts of the book – the evidence is often left out in plain sight. And it's just because you have a relationship that you believe is built on trust, you don't see what's right in front of your eyes.

Yeah, right. But in our tradition, every Torah story has an element of this somewhere in it. Even the fact that the brothers who came to Pharaoh's court for food saw Joseph, who couldn't have looked that different, didn’t recognize him. He was their brother. He was not an infant when they threw him in the pit. But they couldn't imagine his survival or certainly this role for him and he could get away with pretending.

So Joseph duped his brothers to put them through something you might call reparational punishment for what they did to him. He puts the cup in Benjamin’s sack and puts his brothers through a trial by fire punitively. And he's right there in front of them being their brother, but they couldn't see him, just like I couldn't see my parents for who they were. It didn't fit the narrative. Joseph as vice consul for Pharaoh couldn't fit the narrative for the brothers, so they blotted it out. How can my parents have lied to me about when they got married or who they are or who my sister is? How could that be? Where's my other sister [Letty’s twin, the circumstances of whose demise were kept a family secret]? I could never have made that stuff up in order to figure it out.

You differentiate between toxic shame (“a chronic sense of unworthiness [that is] a festering stew of self-loathing that corrodes, debilitates, and yields zero positive by-products”) and guilt, which “can lead to improved behavior and the development of a moral and ethical baseline, which, as I look back on my life, is what Jewish guilt has done for me.” As someone who came from a family so steeped in shandas, how did you arrive at this distinction and what does it mean to you? And how might others use their “Jewish guilt” in the constructive ways you were able to?

I think because I am essentially, quintessentially, a Jew in the sense that I really do what you're supposed to do on Yom Kippur. I really ask for forgiveness from those I've hurt. I understand that I can ask forgiveness from God only for sins against God. For what I’ve done against others, I have to go to them. And then I can spend the day with my shoes hurting, standing and sitting and standing and sitting all day long, and be cleansed. I cannot be cleansed of the shame when I was carrying around the shame of my abortions. Who am I going to in order to get rid of that? So I had to put [the story of that shame] out there to get rid of it.

Guilt is often what we do and shame is who we think we are. You have to get rid of shame at such a deep level. I have some Christians in my family, and I interviewed them about the difference between guilt and shame. In the book, I described my cousin's husband – a firefighter on 9/11 and a big strapping guy –  and his mother used to take her finger and rub her forefingers and say, “Shame on you, shame on you, shame on you.

It wasn't like our Jewish parents, who said, “How could you do such a thing?” You can undo ‘such a thing.’ It wasn't shame on you because you are a terrible person – that seeps into oneself. To get rid of ‘Jewish guilt’ and be a better person, you say you're sorry. If you don't want to feel that guilt again, you stop doing the thing that caused you to feel guilty. Guilt comes from an action-oriented kind of misdemeanor. Shame is inbred and something that is so intrinsic to who you are. You have to go much deeper to get rid of that. You need therapy, I think.

I think that our tradition allows us expiation – and only once a year, because [Yom Kippur] is so majestic as a ritual. It's so big if you're a believer – even if you're not an Orthodox person, which I am not. I believe to the point where I really feel I have to act –  I can't just think, I have to act – to undo these things. And I think most people I know have some version of that, even if they don't put it in the context of halakha.


Letty Cottin Pogrebin, co-founder of Ms. magazine, is a nationally acclaimed writer, activist, and public speaker. The author of twelve books, she has also published articles and essays in numerous print and online periodicals, including the New York Times, The Nation, and Huffington Post. She is a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus and the Ms. Foundation for Women; a past president of the Authors Guild and Americans for Peace Now; and has served on the boards of the Harvard Divinity School Women in Religion Program and the Brandeis University Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Among her many honors are a Yale University Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, a Matrix Award for excellence in communication and the arts, and an Emmy Award for her work as consulting editor on the TV version of Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be...You and Me. Pogrebin lives with her husband in New York City and Stockbridge.